Packed with art in St Ives, Cornwall

THE TATE GALLERY has two branches in the picturesque fishing port of St Ives in Cornwall. The artworks displayed at Tate St Ives are contained in a building overlooking Porthmeor Beach, constructed between 1983 and 1993. It replaced a disused gasworks, but I feel that the gallery’s almost fascistic architecture neither does anything to enhance the town or to match the beauty of many of the items displayed within it. The other part of The Tate in St Ives is house and gardens of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). A visit to her former home and its garden, filled with her sculptures, is a delightful experience.

 

Barbara Hepworth and her sculpture in the Penwith Gallery

Not far from the Tate St Ives, there is another ‘must-see’ attraction for lovers of modern and contemporary art. This is the Penwith Gallery on Back Road East. Less visited than the two Tate institutions in St Ives, the Penwith is the home of the Penwith Society of Arts, one of whose founders was Barbara Hepworth. The gallery contains one of the loveliest Hepworth sculptures that I have seen to date. Maybe I like it because it recalls the works of the Romanian born sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a sculptor whose works are much to my taste. To be frank, I am not a great lover of Hepworth’s sculpture and this piece in the Penwith is less typical of what I do not like about her work.

Returning to the gallery itself, its website reveals (https://penwithgallery.com/):

“The society was founded in 1949 by Barbara Hepworth,Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Sven Berlin and Wilhelmina Barns– Graham, amongst others. Later members have included Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Henry Moore (honorary member). This association with so many progressive and influential artists has given the Penwith Society a unique place in British art history.

Today the society continues to play a central role in the thriving and vibrant St. Ives art community, exhibiting contemporary art from Cornwall and beyond.”

The gallery is housed in a former pilchard packing factory. Its ceiling is supported with roughly hewn granite pillars, painted white. Part of the ceiling is glass-covered, allowing natural light into the largest of the three main display areas. The rest of the ceiling does not transmit light.

The gallery displays an ever-changing collection of artworks, which are on sale. Created by members of the Society or artists, who have worked in the Society’s studios, they include sculptures, prints, paintings, and ceramics. Some of the works are figurative and many of them are abstract. Some are halfway between the two extremes. I have enjoyed abstract art since my childhood. This is probably because my mother, who was a sculptor who enjoyed creating abstract pieces. The lovely Hepworth piece that stands next to a fine photograph of its sculptor, and several other works, form part of the Penwith’s permanent collection. A small range of books and cards are available for visitors to purchase.

Every time I visit the Penwith, I enjoy the gallery’s spaces and the works displayed within them.  Instead of being packed with pilchards, as it was in the past, and other tourists, as are the two Tate establishments, the Penwith is comfortably packed with pleasing works of art, which you can take home if you can afford them, and some of them are not excessively costly.

The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.